Muse leader Matthew Bellamy in Los Angeles in 2011. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Music and athletics are sometimes not a natural fit. Yes, basketball stars hang with hip-hop stars, and X-Games riders hang out with punk rockers, but the worlds of jocks and musicians don't exactly intersect. When they do, it usually results in extremes. In one corner, there's complete camp -- "The Super Bowl Shuffle" -- and in the other, there's complete schmaltz --R. Kelly's "Space Jam"-affiliated "I Believe I Can Fly."
Muse had perhaps one of the more thankless tasks in crafting a song for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It must write a song that represents the host country and doesn't embarrass it. What's more, the lyrics have to be easily translatable for the entire globe, and it should play OK on TV.
Muse isn't winning any fans with its song "Survival," which was let loose among the Web wolves Wednesday. Some of the attacks are deserved. Muse, as I wrote on this blog after I saw the band perform at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 2010, is high-concept music, the rock-'n'-roll equivalent of a special-effects-laden Michael Bay film.
Muse's "Survival" is that vision at its most extended. The 5 1/2-minute song has a bit of everything -- grand, James Newton Howard cinematic strings, Danny Elfman choirs, a "Glee"-ready chorus line, Broadway-worthy finger-snaps, the requisite lyrical nod to the Olympic flame and gargantuan guitars that beg -- need, rather -- slow-motion action-film clips to have any resonance whatsoever.
As a piece of pop, it's dreadful. Singer Matthew Bellamy doesn't even sound like he's having any fun, twisting his vocals into all sorts of strained contortions as he sings of staying alive and wreaking vengeance. This isn't a song for the Olympics as much as it's a song for "The Hunger Games."
Yet this isn't written to be a song. Muse's "Survival" is meant to be heard in bits -- the guitars in a moment of English triumph, the orchestra in a host nation's introduction. It's as if Muse wrote a symphony of musical cues and attempted to Frankenstein them together into a song.
In this sense, "Survival" seems harmless enough. As an Olympics obsessive, hearing 20 seconds of Muse's "Survival" for two weeks won't be as thrilling as, say, Blur's "Song 2," but it sure beats the obsession MLB and TBS have had with Bon Jovi, and it's significantly better than any of the athletic soap operas NBC will create to manufacture drama.
What's more, Blur, one of Brit-pop's most exciting and experimental bands, will close the London games, proving a musical palate cleanser. The band also wrote two new songs for the Olympics, and while those won't be unveiled until next week, they likely won't be any worse than "Survival," unless Blur leader Damon Albarn hasn't gotten his recent opera bug out of his system.
And to be entirely fair, the merry ol' U.S. of A. doesn't exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to music and the Olympics. Our fair city of Los Angeles was responsible for an entire cassette of abominations in 1984. Muse's "Survival" is on par, perhaps even better, than the "history in the making" synth-rock headache of this:
The 1984 Olympics also gave us the dentist-office-waiting-room scorcher from Christopher Cross, "A Chance for Heaven." At least Muse had the good sense to stay secular, unlike "A Chance for Heaven," which is doused in American exceptionalism, a musical pat on the head for all the adorable other countries competing. "I know you want it ... but someone's gonna take it and I'm the one," sings Cross, adding later that "history is our destiny."
The 1994 Olympics in Atlanta went a more serious route, using Gloria Estefan's lazy-day-at-the-spa ballad "Reach." That being said, the fact that a Cuban-born artist wrote a song for the American Summer Games is appreciated.
Yet the greatest recent U.S. offender is LeAnn Rimes' parade-float anthem "Light the Fire Within." Two words: children choirs.
So at least our friends from across the pond are in good international company.